Of all the Republican presidential candidates, none has been more caustic in his criticism of the GOP congressional leadership than publisher Steve Forbes. But he argues that the examples of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan--and his personal experience as a salesman--provide guideposts to a successful relationship between Congress and a Forbes White House.
In a recent interview, the former publisher of Forbes magazine--the man with the least experience in elective or appointive office in the six-man field--said he would use the Internet and plain "persistence, persistence" to mobilize public opinion and pass his program on Capitol Hill.
The Washington Post has interviewed the leading presidential candidates for their views on executive-congressional relations because all modern presidents have found the management of their dealings with Capitol Hill one of the most challenging aspects of their jobs.
Almost all of those interviewed, when asked to assess the state of relations between the White House and Congress, have deplored the high level of partisanship and mutual distrust. But when the same question was put to Forbes, he decried the congressional Republicans' "lack of gumption and stick-to-itiveness."
"Quite bluntly," Forbes said, "you have a Congress that is still very fearful of how Clinton can present issues and paint the GOP in the most malignant terms." Ever since Republicans lost public support in the shutdown of government that resulted from the budget impasse in the winter of 1995-96, he said, "you have had a numb, fearful group" of Republicans on Capitol Hill.
"They never recovered the full initiative," Forbes said. "Instead of being aggressive and probing and fighting," they went into a defensive shell.
Forbes said that his election would give the party the backbone and purposefulness it lacks. "I think they would be relieved that there would be a real sense of direction," he said.
In this, his second bid for the nomination, Forbes has expanded beyond his trademark flat-rate income tax proposal with specific policy ideas for reforming Social Security, Medicare and education policy--mainly by introducing consumer choice and market competition into each of those programs. In many respects, his agenda is not only more substantive but more radical than any other candidate's--and therefore more challenging to enact.
"By putting real stuff on the table" in the campaign, he said, "you'd have a real election mandate. There'd be no question of what we want to do."
In one comment, Forbes appeared to acknowledge that his relative lack of governmental experience could be a handicap, saying he would not try to negotiate agreements with key legislators himself. "These guys have been at it longer than I have; they'd cut me to pieces."
Instead, he said, he would borrow the tools that have worked for others in mobilizing public support to sway the outcome of debate on Capitol Hill. He named President Reagan as a model of salesmanship, but he also cited Richard Nixon--or as Forbes termed him, "Mr. Unglamorous himself."
In 1969, when his Vietnam policy was under attack by thousands of Washington demonstrators, Forbes recalled, Nixon made an effective television speech "and bought himself some time" to pursue his own course of action. "It was hardly a Reaganesque or Clintonesque performance," Forbes said. "Nixon was Nixon. But he had something to say."
In following that example, Forbes said he would also draw on the lessons he learned as an ad salesman for the family magazine: "Persistence. Persistence. You've got to be willing to engage--and that doesn't mean one press conference."
When Jose Pinera, the former Chilean labor minister, was trying to sell voters in his country on the virtues of private savings accounts instead of social insurance, Forbes said, "he went on TV every night for 90 seconds . . . just kept going back after it."
Forbes also said the Internet is "an instrument that I think has been unused so far for electronically mobilizing people" to support a president's program. If "the barons on the Hill know you're nurturing the public, then you have a chance," he said.
The Candidates and Congress
Every recent president has found that one of his most difficult challenges lies in managing his relationship with Congress. The Washington Post is interviewing the leading presidential candidates to hear their ideas for dealing with this part of the job.
Forbes in His Own Words
Q: What experience have you had that would equip you as president to deal with Congress?
A: Realizing it's two very different worlds, I would still say: Selling the magazine to advertisers. Nothing sells itself. Most of the business does not come over the transom. You need a coordinated, constant effort. The first "no" is never a "no," and the "yes" never stays a "yes" unless you nurture the thing. It's a constant every day. It's never over. And that's something I learned at an early age from my father. He told us, "I want you to know how your bread is buttered," so as soon as we were old enough to go to a [Forbes magazine] function, we weren't just there as an ornament. We were expected to help out. And so I think that, while obviously it's a very different world, you're always having to sell. My father always said, "Everything is sales. Never forget it." And we were expected to sell. You bet.
Q: Did you deal much with Congress when you were chairman of the Reagan administration's Board for International Broadcasting, the panel that supervises Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty?
A: Absolutely. You'd have to go to your authorizing committee and then the appropriations committee, and the subcommittees, and you'd work with staff. Also, I had real front-line experience with those who wanted to raid our budget or conquer us or do something nefarious to us. I learned how the budget is done at the worm's-eye level within OMB. I know what those account people can do and the games they can play. I remember a high muck-a-muck at the State Department calling me up one day and saying, "We need $50 million, and we're going to take it out of your budget for transmitters." Lane Kirkland and I went to battle on that and we won. So I've been there at a nitty-gritty level that most people haven't experienced.